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Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): It is already clear that we are talking about an area of the law and of policy that is archaic, highly technical and very complicated. The Bill is a useful vehicle to take the discussion forward. It has been a long time coming and there has been a lot of background work on it.
The Bill is important in two significant ways. First, it helps the Government to meet their own target of getting 95 per cent. of sites of special scientific interest in a favourable condition by 2010. That is an important aim in itself. It is particularly important in relation to national parks. For example, a third of England's common land is in Cumbria and the Lake district has a high density of village greens. Secondly, the Bill facilitates common structures and organisational changes. Common holders can come together on a statutory basis to bring about change and apply for agri-environment benefits.
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I am not entirely sure whether those processesthose organisational changes in the Billwill be a driver for change as much as the new agri-environment schemes will be. The way in which we pay our farmers is changing significantly. The importance of mid-term review and the switch from payments for subsidies on production to payments for public good has been undervalued and under-recognised. However, the trend seen in the changes will continue. It seems inevitable to me that a fixed common agricultural policy budget, new accession states and a review of the CAP, which is promised for 2008, will bring about a major change in the way in which we support and pay farmers. If we are moving in that direction, and that is the right direction, we need to ensure that all new legislationthe Bill includedtakes account of the wider public benefit and not just the private benefit to farmers and landowners.
As I said, this is a highly technical Bill and I pay credit to the Minister's officials, who have worked extremely hard on it. Throughout the country, there is recognition of the way in which the Bill team and officials have gone out and listened to different views and tried to find consensus, which has not always been easy. This is a good example of a Bill that has been improved because the Department was prepared to listen to views in the field. As has been said, the Bill was subject to substantial scrutiny in the other place. A great deal of expertise has been brought to bear on it and many amendments were made. Nevertheless, the Bill should have been published in draft and subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, as it is an ambitious task to introduce it and make changes during its progress through Parliament. I accept the Minister's desire to make progress and take an available legislative slot, but if ever a Bill needed detailed scrutiny, this is such a measure.
Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): The hon. Gentleman has made a valid point, as a labyrinth of legal measures surrounds the issue. Putney and Wimbledon commons in my constituency are covered by measures on urban commons introduced in 1925. We must be careful that we understand all the Bill's ramifications, so he has made a very good point.
Paddy Tipping: Let me make a confession. I am not sure that I understand all the Bill's ramifications, but I have learned rapidly and I expect that a number of issues will be discussed in Committee, as the Minister suggested. It is a fundamental principle of mine, however, that complicated, technical Bills should be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. I accept that Ministers in the Department wanted to take advantage of the opportunity offered by an unforeseen legislative slot, but that is not necessarily the best way forward.
I am surprised but, as I hope to serve in Committee, I am pleased as well. I am confident that a range of issues need to be probed and scrutinised in Committee, and we have already heard examples of such issues on Second Reading.
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The hon. Gentleman leads me on to the royal commission report that was published in 1958 and eventually led to the introduction of the Commons Registration Act 1965. That was the first leg of work after the royal commission report. The second leg was the CROW Act, which provided rights of access over common land. The Bill is the third leg: it is right to concentrate on management and biodiversity, but it has taken us almost 50 years since the royal commission report to complete the legislative process.
I am particularly keen on clause 15, which has been discussed this evening. I want to see more village greens. We are currently awaiting a judgment from the Lords on the Trap Grounds case, which has cast the law into turmoil. If people make an application after usage for a number of years, it is not acceptable for the land owner, on learning of that application, to stop it because they object to it. However, the Court of Appeal decided that it was acceptable, so I am delighted that the Bill overcomes that hurdle. Village greens are important for a range of recreational and social reasons.
I am particularly keen to have a village green at Keenwell in Calverton. Local people have come together and submitted an application to create a new village green in an area that has been used informally for more than 20 years. The site has historical connections, but it needs to be improved, and there are plans in Calverton to try to do so. That site is next to Dark lanean evocative name and a traditional right of way through to the south of the village. There are plans to develop the western side of Dark lane for housing and to bring an access road through Keenwell. Clearly, different interests are at play here, but it is important that when an area has been in legitimate use over many years, applications to develop it should be considered very carefully. No planning application has yet been made in respect of Dark lane. I hope that Gedling borough council, which has to deal with the application, will wait for the outcome of the application for village green status at Keenwell. I have met the council and it is familiar with the argument: I hope that it will wait for the legislation to come through and then make a balanced consideration about the need for housing as against the need to enhance the environment in Calverton.
People feel strongly about their recreational spaces and their common land. In the city of Nottingham, people really appreciate the 130 acres of allotted recreation grounds. They have been laid out in three miles of public walks and five public parks or recreation grounds. Mrs. June Perry has corresponded with the Department about the issue. She wanted to know the status of allotted recreation grounds and wrote to the Department in February. Unfortunately, she has received no response, but she wants to see the allotted recreation grounds on the commons register. She says in her letter:
"It seems to me to be a strange anomaly that Allotted Recreation Grounds, which have been covered by all the Commons Acts since 1845, have not been placed automatically on the Register of Commons and Town and Village Greens."
By mentioning Mrs. Perry and her desire and drive to improve recreation and informal spaces right in the centre of Nottingham, I hope that we will be able to make some progress on the case that she makes.
At the heart of the Bill, as we have already heard, is the notion of commons associations. I hope that they will provide a real mechanism to manage and improve common land. Some already exist in a voluntary form. It is vital, however, not just to pass the legislation and put the process in place, but to go out and promote the commons associations. It has already been suggested that, because of costs and administrative burdens, some voluntary associations will be reluctant to make that step change. It is easy for us to pass legislation without fully considering the steps necessary to create the new commons associations. It is relatively easy to see how large commons could be managed this way, but many of our commons are small and fragmented pieces of land and the new sort of association does not fit so easily there. There has been talk of joining up these pieces of common land, perhaps on a county basis, but unless there is real commitment from the people involved in those land holdings, that may be difficult to achieve. The issue requires further thought and consideration.
Assuming that support and finance for the new commons associations is available, one of the key issues to consider, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) has already said, is who should be on them. Should it just be the commoners, or are there other bodies that can bring expertise to the associationfor example, the National Trust and the national parks have got a lot of resources? If we are offering finance and support, we must bear in mind the need to deliver wider public goods and, possibly, to involve other stakeholders in the association.
I assume that the term, "member", in clause 30 includes all registered commoners. If a new association is set up, it seems to me that all commoners with grazing rights should be part of it. The Minister has already alluded to the provision in clause 30 on elections to the association, and perhaps he will bring us up to speed with the thinking on what membership of an association means either in his reply or in Committee. He will also be aware of the suggestion that statutory commons associations might better be termed statutory commons committees in order to distinguish them from existing bodies.
This is a good Bill, but it could be improved and strengthened. I accept that it should be possible to deregister commons, but I am concerned about the provision in clause 16 that it may not be necessary to exchange comparative land for commons of less than 200 sq m. Many commons are small, and, they will be eaten away piecemeal unless we are careful. Again, I look forward to the debate on replacing deregistered common land on small commons.
As the Minister has said, clause 45 deals with the powers of local authorities, which are permissive powers rather than duties. There has been some discussion in the Chamber this evening whether local authorities have got the resources to pursue such matters, and I suspect that issues connected with common land will be relatively low on the agenda for many hard-pressed local authorities. Some commons have no record of ownership, and there is a strong case to argue, as the
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royal commission has done, that local authorities should have the power to have that land vested in them, so that they can make the necessary improvements.
A survey of commons has been undertaken in my area, Nottinghamshire, and it found that many of them are fragmented and piecemeal. Of the 74 commons surveyed, 11 are totally encroached upon, eight are partially encroached upon and seven are neglected, which reinforces the case for local authorities to take common land, to have it vested in them and to improve it.
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